UPOV Hails Benefits of Plant Variety Protection; Civil Society Frustrated

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The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) held a symposium last week on the benefits of plant variety protection as a way to help mitigate agricultural challenges and improve the livelihood of farmers. Also last week, during the UPOV Council, civil society denounced a push for a more stringent version of the UPOV Convention, and said new rules for observers were disappointing.

A new president and a new vice-president were elected by the Council on 1 November. The new president is Kitisri Sukhapinda, attorney advisor in the Office of Policy and External Affairs at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and previous vice-president. Luis Salaices, head of the Variety Register Unit, Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment, is the new UPOV vice-president.

The UPOV press release on the outcome of the Council is here [pdf].

On 2 November, UPOV held a symposium on the benefits of plant variety protection for farmers and growers, which gathered a number of stakeholders. The symposium looked at the role of plant variety protection (PVP) in improving income for farmers and growers, and during a second session, the role of PVP in enabling farmers and growers to become breeders.

This symposium follows two previous events of the same nature. The first symposium was held from 11-12 April 2011 and focused on PVP and technology transfer, and the benefits of public-private partnerships.

The second symposium was held on 21 October 2011 considered plant breeding for the future.

Francis Gurry, director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization and secretary general of UPOV, opened the symposium, saying that “plant breeding and plant protection is as important and maybe more important today at it was 50 years ago when the UPOV system was first established.”

Better plant varieties were presented by most speakers as being able to address issues such as risks linked to climate change, to increase production to meet the rising global population with shrinking arable land, to answer the demand for higher standards, and to raise income for farmers. Thor Gunnar Kofoed of the General Committee for Agricultural Cooperation in the European Union said in Europe cereal production is stalling and farmers need to learn how to treat crops, use new varieties, and produce more.

The experiences of small-holder flower growers in Kenya and fruit growers in France were presented, highlighting the importance of PVP in increasing income. The speakers stressed the importance of uniformity and quality of the products, and high productivity to gain competitiveness.

Intellectual property rights are an important tool for producers in developing countries for food security and market access but there is a need for a mechanism for fair play between farmers and breeders as sometimes seed prices are prohibitive for small farmers, said Simon Maina, senior inspector for the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, called at the last minute to replace the original speaker.

Stephen Smith, germplasm security coordinator for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, said in the context of the challenges facing agriculture in the next 50 years, the genetic contribution from plant breeding was critical and intellectual property protection vitally important. Dupont-Pioneer is focused on understanding farmers’ needs to be able to provide them with the seeds that meet those needs, he said, adding, “Local issues drive local product development.”

Farmers’ Seeds and UPOV Varieties Follow Different Rules

Guy Kastler, speaking on behalf of the farmers’ group Via Campesina, said today 70 percent of global food production comes from subsistence farming, and less than 2 percent of all farmers use mechanised equipment. Subsistence farming has a very different seed system than the one used by commercial farming, he said. “We produce our seeds in the same field as the one we produce food,” he said. They do not have a special plot of land devoted for breeding.

Part of the harvest is used to re-sow which allows farmers to adapt their seeds to evolving local conditions, he said. In order to conserve biodiversity small quantities of seeds are exchanged between farmers, which might be in contradictions with some national interpretations of the breeders’ rights, he said.

The UPOV system has brought a number of improvements but also new varieties which are adapted to pesticides, fertilizers, mechanised agriculture, and irrigation, and meant for large-scale farming. The informal farmer seeds system is much more effective when it comes to adapt to local conditions each year, he said.

Although this is not due to the 1991 UPOV convention, he added, a large number of UPOV member countries use the same criteria of uniformity and stability used by UPOV for their certification and national registration, which are conditions for access to market.

Another problem with the 1991 Convention, according to Kastler, is that the protection has been extended to essentially derived varieties. This leads to a situation where some varieties which are protected by PVP are coming from plants already protected by a patent on processes or genes. When a farmer buys a bag of seeds, he does not know if there is a patented gene inside, he only becomes aware of the fact when it is time to commercialise his products and is asked to pay royalties, he said.

In countries which have this double layer of protection, small breeders are disappearing, he said, bought by large breeders which own the largest patent portfolios. That is dangerous for biodiversity and threatens the food sovereignty of countries, he said.

UPOV is at a crossroads between whether it will support farmers against the patent system while respecting the farmers’ right to re-sow their own harvest, or whether PVP will become a patent, he concluded.

Gurry’s UPOV 91 Push; Rules for Africa, Regions; Bristling Civil Society

At the close of the UPOV Council on 1 November, the Association for Plant Breeding for the Benefit of Society (APBREBES) issued a press release voicing their disappointment over the new rules for granting observer status. Despite inputs provided by APBREBES, they said “these rules make UPOV less inclusive.” Of particular concern is a rule concerning international non-governmental organisations with different coordination entities. The observer status will only be granted to one coordinating group per organisation.

This rule, according to APBREBES, “is clearly aimed at targeting farmer groups such as la Via Campesina, the largest famers’ organisation worldwide, which has ‘regional coordination entities’ as part of its structure.” The European Coordination of la Via Campesina currently has observer status at UPOV but the new rule will prevent participation of other coordination entities such as Latin American Coordination of Countryside Organizations, they said.

The new rule will “further exacerbate the current imbalance in the representation of stakeholder groups” in UPOV, they said, claiming that the seed industry benefits from a large representation at UPOV. Syngenta, they said, is represented in UPOV by “CropLife, the International Seed Federation, the European Seed Association, CIAPORA, the African Seed and Trade Association and the Asian and Pacific Seed Association.”

APBREBES also reported that at the UPOV Council, Gurry “called on all member states to ratify the UPOV Act of 1991 in order to ensure a ‘constitutional clean-up’”. UPOV 91 has been described by civil society as giving more rights to the breeder to the expense of farmers.

Concerns on African Regional Framework

The African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) has been working on a regional draft legal framework for the protection of new varieties of plants. During the UPOV Council, the representative of ARIPO made a statement in which he mentioned the advancement of the legal framework, according to sources.

In the statement, ARIPO thanked a number of organisations for financial assistance, technical support and technical inputs. The statement mentioned the USPTO for financial assistance, UPOV and the European Union Community Plant Variety Office for technical support, the International Community of Breeders of Asexually Reproduced Ornamental and Fruit Plants, and the African Seed Trade Association for technical inputs. The statement also mentions general support from the French Groupement National Interprofessionel des Semences (interprofessional seed association).

Those elements are characterised by APBREBES as an unbalanced process to “develop new laws on plant variety protection for the 18 Member States of the ARIPO region.”

The views or interests of small-scale farmers “which dominate more than 80% of the agricultural systems of ARIPO member states,” have not been taken into consideration, they said, in disregard of Article 9(2)(c) of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture on farmers’ and indigenous communities participation in decision-making.

Catherine Saez may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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